Ptah was an ancient Egyptian deity associated with creation, craftsmanship, and architecture. He was often depicted as a mummified figure with a skullcap and a long beard and was considered a creator god, responsible for crafting and shaping the world and everything in it. He was closely linked with the city of Memphis in Egypt and was one of the chief gods of the Memphis Triad, alongside his consort Sekhmet and their son Nefertem.
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Who Was Ptah?
Ptah was the creator god, the being who existed before all and brought all else into existence. One of his many titles, in fact, is Ptah the Begetter of the First Beginning.
He was credited with the creation of the world, of men, and of his fellow gods. According to myth, Ptah brought all these things into being with his heart (considered the seat of intelligence and thought in ancient Egypt) and with his tongue. He envisioned the world, then spoke it into existence.
Ptah the Builder
As a god of creation, Ptah was also the patron of craftsmen and builders, and his high priests, called Greatest Directors of Craftsmanship, played a crucial political and practical role in society and religion. He was invoked by craftsmen in Egypt for thousands of years, and representations of him have been found in numerous ancient workshops.
This role – as builder, craftsman, and architect – clearly gave Ptah a key role in a society so well-known for its engineering and construction. And it was this role, perhaps more than his status as creator of the world, that imbued him with such enduring appeal in ancient Egypt.
The Power of Three
It was a common practice in ancient Egyptian religion to group deities into triads or groups of three. The triad of Osiris, Isis, and Horus is perhaps the most well-known example of this. Other examples are the Elephantine triad of Khenmu (the ram-headed god of potters), Anuket (goddess of the Nile), and Satit (goddess of Egypt’s southern border, and seen as connected to the flooding of the Nile).
Ptah, likewise, was included in one such triad. Joining Ptah in what is known as the Memphite triad was his wife Sekhmet, a lion-headed goddess of both destruction and healing and their son Nefertem, the god of perfumes, called He Who is Beautiful.
Given the sheer breadth of Egyptian history – a stunning three millennia from the Early Dynastic Period to the Late Period, which ended about 30 BCE – it makes sense that Egyptian gods and religious ideals would undergo a fair amount of evolution. Gods took on new roles and became conflated with similar gods from other areas as largely independent cities and regions coalesced into a single nation, and were adapted to societal changes brought by advancement, cultural shifts, and immigration.
Ptah, as one of the oldest gods in Egypt, was clearly no exception. Through the Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms he would be depicted in different ways and be seen in different aspects, growing to be one of the most prominent gods in Egyptian mythology.
A Local God
The story of Ptah is inextricably linked with that of Memphis. He was the primary local god of the city, not unlike the various gods that functioned as patrons of various Greek cities, like Ares for Sparta, Poseidon for Corinth, and Athena for Athens.
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The city was canonically founded at the start of the First Dynasty by the legendary King Menes after he united the Upper and Lower Kingdoms into a single nation, but Ptah’s influence far preceded that. There is evidence that the worship of Ptah in some form extended as far back as 6000 BCE in the area that would become Memphis millennia later.
But Ptah would ultimately spread far beyond Memphis. As Egypt progressed through its dynasties, Ptah, and his place in Egyptian religion changed, transforming him from a local god into something much more.
Spreading to a Nation
As the political center of the newly unified Egypt, Memphis held an outsized cultural influence. So it was that the city’s revered local god would become increasingly prominent in the country as a whole from the very beginnings of the Old Kingdom.
With the city’s newfound importance, it became a frequent destination for both merchants and those going to and fro on government business. These interactions led to cultural cross-pollination of all sorts between the formerly separate territories of the kingdom – and that included the spread of Ptah’s cult.
Of course, Ptah didn’t spread simply by this passive process, but by his importance to the rulers of Egypt as well. Ptah’s high priest worked hand-in-glove with the pharaoh’s vizier, serving as the nation’s chief architects and master craftsmen and providing a more practical avenue for the spread of Ptah’s influence.
As the Old Kingdom continued into a golden age in the 4th Dynasty, the pharaohs oversaw an explosion of civic construction and grand monuments including the Great Pyramids and the Sphinx, as well as the royal tombs at Saqqara. With such construction and engineering underway in the country, the growing importance of Ptah and his priests during this period can be easily imagined.
Like the Old Kingdom, Ptah’s cult rose into its own golden age during this time. Commensurate with the god’s ascendancy, Memphis saw the construction of his great temple – the Hout-ka-Ptah, or House of the Soul of Ptah.
This grand building was one of the largest and most significant structures in the city, occupying its own district near the center. Sadly, it didn’t survive into the modern era, and archaeology has only begun to fill in the broad strokes of what must have been an impressive religious complex.
In addition to being a craftsman, Ptah was also seen as a wise and fair judge, as seen in his epithets Master of Justice and Lord of Truth. He also occupied a central place in public life, believed to oversee all public festivals, most notably the Heb-Sed, which celebrated the 30th year of a king’s rule (and every three years thereafter) and was one of the oldest festivals in the country.
During the Old Kingdom, Ptah was already evolving. He became closely linked with Sokar, the Memphite funerary god who served as ruler of the entrance to the underworld, and the two would lead to the combined god Ptah-Sokar. The pairing made a certain sense. Sokar, typically depicted as a falcon-headed man, had begun as an agricultural god but, like Ptah, had also been considered a god of craftsmen.
Ptah had his own funerary links – he was, according to myth, the creator of the ancient Opening of the Mouth ritual, in which a special tool was used to prepare the body to eat and drink in the afterlife by prying open the jaws. This link is confirmed in the Egyptian Book of the Dead, which in Chapter 23 contains a version of the ritual that notes “My mouth is released by Ptah.”
Ptah likewise would be linked during the Old Kingdom to an older Memphite earth god, Ta Tenen. As another ancient god of creation originating in Memphis, he was naturally connected with Ptah, and Ta Tenen would ultimately be absorbed into Ptah-Ta Tenen.
The Transition to the Middle Kingdom
By the end of the 6th Dynasty, increasing decentralization of power, possibly coupled with struggles over succession after the stunningly long-lived Pepi II, led to the decline of the Old Kingdom. A historic drought that hit about 2200 BCE proved too much for the weakened nation, and the Old Kingdom collapsed into decades of chaos in the First Intermediate Period.
For a century and a half, this Egyptian Dark Age left the nation in chaos. Memphis was still the seat of a line of ineffectual rulers comprising the 7th through the 10th Dynasties, but they – and the art and culture of Memphis – retained little sway beyond the city’s walls.
The nation once again became bifurcated into Upper and Lower Egypt, with new kings rising in Thebes and Heracleopolis, respectively. The Thebans would ultimately win the day and reunify the country once more in what would become the Middle Kingdom – changing the character of not only the nation but of its gods as well.
The Rise of Amun
As Memphis had Ptah, so Thebes had Amun. He was their primary god, a creator god associated with life similar to Ptah – and like his Memphite counterpart, he was himself uncreated, a primordial being who existed before all things.
Just as was the case with his predecessor, Amun benefitted from the proselytizing effect of being the god of a nation’s capital. He would spread throughout Egypt and occupy the position Ptah held during the Old Kingdom. Somewhere between his rise and the start of the New Kingdom, he would be conflated with the sun god Ra, to make a supreme deity called Amun-Ra.
Further Changes to Ptah
This is not to say Ptah disappeared during this time. He was still worshipped through the Middle Kingdom as a creator god, and various artifacts and inscriptions dating from this time testify to the god’s enduring reverence. And of course, his importance to artisans of all stripes was undiminished.
But he also continued to see new incarnations. The earlier association of Ptah with Sokar led to him being linked with another funerary god, Osiris, and the Middle Kingdom saw them combined into Ptah-Sokar-Osiris, who would become a regular feature in funerary inscriptions going forward.
The Transition to the New Kingdom
The Middle Kingdom’s time in the sun was brief – just under 300 years. The nation grew precipitously toward the end of this period, urged on by Amenemhat III, who invited foreign settlers to contribute to Egypt’s growth and development.
But the kingdom outgrew its own production and began to collapse under its own weight. Another drought further undercut the country, which tumbled into chaos again until it ultimately fell to those very settlers who’d been invited in – the Hyksos.
For the century following the collapse of the 14th Dynasty, the Hyksos ruled Egypt from a new capital, Avaris, located in the Nile Delta. Then the Egyptians (led from Thebes) rallied and ultimately drove them from Egypt, ending the Second Intermediate Period and taking the nation into the New Kingdom with the start of the 18th Dynasty.
Ptah in the New Kingdom
The New Kingdom saw the rise of the so-called Memphite Theology, which again elevated Ptah to the role of the creator. He now became associated with the Nun, or primordial chaos, from which Amun-Ra had sprung.
As laid out in the Shabaka Stone, a relic from the 25th Dynasty, Ptah created Ra (Atum) with his speech. Ptah was thus seen as creating the supreme deity Amun-Ra through divine command, retaking his position as the primordial god.
In this era, Ptah became increasingly conflated with Amun-Ra, as evidenced in a set of poems from the reign of Ramses II in the 19th Dynasty called the Leiden Hymns. In them, Ra, Amun, and Ptah are treated essentially as interchangeable names for one divine entity, with Amun as the name, Ra as the face, and Ptah as the body. Given the similarity of the three gods, this conflation makes sense – though other sources from the time still seem to regard them as separate, if only technically.
Thus, Ptah had, in a sense, recaptured the prominence he had enjoyed in the Old Kingdom, and now on an even grander scale. As the New Kingdom progressed, Amun in his three parts (Ra, Amun, Ptah) was increasingly seen as “the” god of Egypt, with his high priests reaching a level of power rivaling that of the pharaohs.
In Egypt’s Twilight
As the New Kingdom faded into the Third Intermediate Period with the end of the Twentieth Dynasty, Thebes became the dominant power in the country. The pharaoh continued to rule from Tanis, in the Delta, but the priesthood of Amun controlled more land and resources.
Interestingly, this political division did not mirror a religious one. Even as Amun (at least vaguely still associated with Ptah) fueled the power of Thebes, the pharaoh was still coronated in Ptah’s temple, and even as Egypt faded into the Ptolemaic era, Ptah endured as his high priests continued a close relationship with the royal court.
Depictions of Ptah
Gods in Ancient Egypt were often presented in a variety of forms, especially as they absorbed or were associated with other gods or divine aspects over time. And for a god with the long pedigree of Ptah, it should be no surprise that we find him depicted in a number of ways.
He is most commonly shown as a man with green skin (symbolic of life and rebirth) wearing a tight-braided divine beard. He commonly wears a tight shroud and carries a scepter that bears three of Ancient Egypt’s primary religious symbols – the Ankh, or key of life; the Djed pillar, a symbol of stability that appears frequently in hieroglyphs; and the Was scepter, a symbol of power and dominion over chaos.
Interestingly, Ptah is consistently portrayed with a straight beard, while other gods sported curved ones. This may, like his green skin, be related to his association with life, as pharaohs were depicted with straight beards in life and curved ones (showing association with Osiris) after they died.
Ptah was alternately depicted as a naked dwarf. This is not as surprising as it seems, as dwarves were given great respect in Ancient Egypt and seen as recipients of a celestial gift. Bes, the god of childbirth and humor, was likewise commonly depicted as a dwarf. Dwarves were frequently associated with craftsmanship in Egypt and seem to have had outsized representation in those occupations.
Amulets and figurines of a dwarf were commonly found among Egyptians as well as Phoenicians during the Late Kingdom, and these seem to be associated with Ptah. Herodotus, in The Histories, refers to these figures as associated with the Greek god Hephaestus and calls them pataikoi, a name which may well derive from Ptah. That these figures were often found in Egyptian workshops only cements their connection to the patron of craftsmen.
His Other Incarnations
Other depictions of Ptah arose from his syncretism, or blending, with other gods. For example, when he was combined with another Memphite deity, Ta Tenen, during the Old Kingdom, this combined aspect was depicted as being crowned with a sun disc and a pair of long feathers.
And where he was later associated with the funerary gods Osiris and Sokar, he would take on aspects of those gods. Figures of Ptah-Sokar-Osiris would frequently show him as a mummified man, usually accompanied by a hawk figure, and were a common funerary accessory in the New Kingdom.
He was also associated with the Apis bull, the sacred bull that was worshipped in the Memphis region. The degree of this association – whether it was ever considered a true aspect of Ptah or merely a separate entity connected to him is in question, however.
And His Titles
With a history as long and varied as Ptah’s, it should be no surprise that he accumulated a number of titles along the way. These are a reflection not just of his prominence in Egyptian life, but of the variety of roles he occupied across the nation’s history.
In addition to those already mentioned – Begetter of the First Beginning, Lord of Truth, and Master of Justice, Ptah was also the Master of Ceremonies for his role in festivals such as the Heb-Sed, or Sed Festival. He also earned the title the God Who Made Himself to be God, further signifying his status as the primordial creator.
A figurine from the 26th Dynasty (Third Intermediate Period) also labels him the Lord of Lower Egypt, Master Craftsman, and Lord of the Sky (likely a relic of his association with the sky god Amun).
As Ptah was seen as an intercessor with humans, he earned the title Ptah Who Listens to Prayers. He was also addressed with more obscure epithets such as Ptah the Double Being and Ptah the Beautiful Face (a title similar to that of fellow Memphite god Nefertem).
The Legacy of Ptah
It’s already been mentioned that figures of Ptah in his dwarf aspect were carried by Phoenicians as well as Egyptians. That’s just one example of how the size, power, and longevity of Ptah’s cult allowed the god to move beyond Egypt itself to the broader ancient world.
Particularly with the rise of the New Kingdom and Egypt’s unprecedented reach, deities like Ptah saw increasing exposure in neighboring lands. Herodotus and other Greek writers make mention of Ptah, usually conflating him with their own crafter-god, Hephaestus. Figurines of Ptah have been found in Carthage, and there is evidence that his cult spread across the Mediterranean.
The Mandaeans, an obscure offshoot of Christianity in Mesopotamia, include in their cosmology an angel named Ptahil who seems similar to Ptah in some respects and is associated with creation. While there is a small chance that this is evidence of the god being imported, it is more likely that Ptahil’s name simply derives from the same ancient Egyptian root (meaning “to carve” or “to chisel”) as Ptah’s.
Ptah’s Role in the Making of Egypt
But Ptah’s most lasting legacy is in Egypt, where his cult began and flourished. While his home city, Memphis, wasn’t the capital city throughout the whole of Egyptian history, it remained an important educational and cultural center, and as such was embedded in the DNA of the nation.
That Ptah’s priests also doubled as masters of practical skills – architects and artisans – allowed them to contribute to the literal structure of Egypt in a way no other priesthood could. Not to mention, this ensured an enduring role in the country that allowed the cult to remain relevant even during the changing eras of Egyptian history.
And of Its Name
But the most enduring impact of Ptah was in the name of the country itself. Ancient Egyptians knew their country as Kemet, or the Black Land, referring to the fertile lands of the Nile as opposed to the Red Land of the surrounding desert.
But remember that Ptah’s temple, the House of the Soul of Ptah (referred to as wt-ka-ptah in Middle Egyptian), was a significant part of one of the nation’s key cities – so much so that the Greek translation of this name, Aigyptos, became the shorthand for the country as a whole, and evolved to the modern name Egypt. Furthermore, in Late Egyptian the temple’s name was hi-ku-ptah, and from this name the word Copt, describing first the people of ancient Egypt in general and later, in today’s modern context, the country’s indigenous Christians.